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THAAD Fuels Tensions in South Korea-China Relations

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013. ( Wikimedia)

After months of intense negotiations, the US-South Korea Joint Working Group announced the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system close to the town of Seongju, in North Gyeongsang. The THAAD is designed to enhance Seoul’s deterrence capability, expanding its PATRIOT PAC-3 missile defense system. The decision is the direct consequence of the DPRK’s increasingly level of threat and provocations, originated by its resolute determination to bolster its nuclear capabilities, major source of legitimation of Kim’s power.

Albeit, THAAD remains a critical tool to intercept easily any medium and intermediate ballistic range such as the SCUD-types, it has a limited capability to shoot down Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The agreement has been saluted by Washington, which remains committed to uphold the principles of non-proliferation, while strengthening its strategic engagement with Japan and South Korea, constantly under Pyongyang’s nuclear-armed threat.

Beijing strongly antagonizes the decision of the deployment of THAAD, whose scope “far exceeds the Korean Peninsula’s defense needs and harm other’s countries legitimate security interest” as stressed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Beijing believes the THAAD undermines China’s strategic operability since its radar system could be employed to monitor the airspace within China’s territory.

Despite the Park Administration’s attempt to reassure Beijing, arguing that the deployment of THAAD will be critical to foster the level of security in the peninsula, China has harshly criticized South Korea’s decision. Alongside the last conference of the ASEAN Foreign Minsters, Minister Wang Yi has underlined Beijing’s disapproval over a decision that jeopardizes the foundation of the positive relations between China and South Korea.

Albeit, Seoul maintains a close strategic partnership with Washington, forged in the aftermath of the Korean War, in the last few decades Beijing has moved toward a marked recalibration of its diplomatic, economic and strategic role in the Korean peninsula, enhanced by a renovated entente with the former enemy.

President Park’s foreign policy agenda has focused on the improvement of the relations with Beijing, after a cooling period under Lee Administration. Seoul has positively welcomed the expansion of Beijing-led initiative “One Belt, One Road” and it is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), inaugurated by Beijing in 2015. South Korea is increasingly dependent on Beijing’s economy and in the last decade the level of economic engagement has boosted and nowadays Seoul is Beijing’s fourth largest trading partner.

President Park has praised China’s effort to put pressure on Pyongyang, taking a clear stance against the use of nuclear weapons, main condition for the pursuing of  the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China remains adamant in advocating the resolution of the intra-Korean tensions through dialogue, albeit its efforts have been frustrated by Pyongyang’s opposition to resuming negotiations.

The persistent threat represented by North Korea’s determination to assert its nuclear power has severely affected the regional security balance. Since last February, the Pyongyang has carried out a large number of missile tests, including medium and long-range ballistic missiles, fueling the level of tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang’s claims over the acquisition of thermonuclear and miniaturization technology, vital to enhance its nuclear power capabilities have caused a harsh response of the UN that imposed an extensive range of sanctions under the UN Security Council Resolution 2270 in March 2016.

In the last few months, the rhetoric over the undisputed vocation of the DPRK as a legitimate nuclear power has been replaced by more dreadful proclaims of nuclear annihilation toward the continental U.S. and their allies, as a retaliation to any attempt to alter the status quo in the Korean peninsula.

The acceleration of the nuclear program and the increasingly inflamed tone of the North Korea warmongering propaganda have been boosted since the recent 7th Congress of Workers’ Party that took place last May in Pyongyang, offering a perfect opportunity to Kim Jong-un to strengthen his unsteady leadership.

Yet, the deployment of THAAD has provoked the rage of Pyongyang, threatening to retail South Korea. Pyongyang has a consolidated tradition of brinksmanship policy and despite warmongering proclaims, North Korean’s leadership has not the intention to trigger a major conflict in the peninsula.

Kim Jong-un’s power relies on the ability to fulfill the aspiration of the country as a nuclear power state as enshrined in its Constitution and the pursuing of a nuclear legitimization remains the most critical tool to maintain the status quo in the peninsula, ensuring at the same time the consolidation of Kim’s personal leadership, celebrated through the acquisition and the recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear power.

Implications for the regional strategic balance

While THAAD remains the most vital tool to deter Pyongyang’s rising assertiveness, countries like China and Russia remain resolute to oppose its deployment. In a recent press conference, Foreign Minister Spokesman, Lu Kang has stressed that THAAD severely disrupts the regional strategic balance, committing China to take all the necessary measures to safeguard its core interest.

THAAD itself does not represent a particular threat to Beijing’s nuclear strike capabilities since the antiballistic-system aims to intercept intermediate-range ballistic missiles oriented toward South Korea.

As the level of tension has increased in the Korean peninsula, Washington has seized the momentum to realign its strategic priorities in the region while recalibrating its traditional role as a security patron for Japan and South Korea. In the last few months, marked changes in the regional scenario have affected the strategic role of both countries within the alliance with the US.

After repeated military provocations, South Korea has abandoned its traditional strategic patience that has characterized the recent relations with North Korea, shutting down Kaesong industrial complex and resorting to a more assertive strategy. The threat represented by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions has certainly affected Tokyo’s commitment to a broader engagement within US-Japan alliance, allowing Abe Administration to foster a marked change in its defense policy, traditionally characterized by a pragmatic reluctant realism.

North Korea’s belligerent posture has galvanized South Korea and Japan, mutually unsympathetic due to the unresolved historical grievances, to promote a close cooperation under the auspices of Washington. The CCP leadership considers the increasingly level of the defense cooperation promoted by Obama Administration, vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear threat, as a potential opportunity for Washington to build and expand an articulate regional defense missile that could be used in a foreseeable future to jeopardize Beijing’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

From China’s perspective THAAD represents the very first step in the establishment of an extensive Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) regional system, engaging major allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. Under the guidelines of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020, Obama Administration has launched a wider level of integration of missile defense capabilities, stressing the promotion of robust forms of strategic integration alongside the major goals of the Rebalance to Asia strategy.

While China has shown no objection to a multilateral engagement in the securitization of the Korean peninsula, the deploying of Washington-led strategic initiatives such the BMD has originated deep concerns within the CCP. A marked strategic shift represented by the BMD could compromise Beijing’s nuclear deterrence while boosting Washington’s efforts to establish a robust strategic partnership in the region, critical pillar of a pronounced realignment of the regional power balance at Beijing’s expanses.

The issue of the THAAD could seriously compromise Beijing’s cordial engagement with Seoul, encouraging South Korea to embrace fully Washington’s strategic agenda. China needs to recognize Seoul’s security priorities, refraining from using the threat of economic and diplomatic retaliations in the futile attempt to persuade Park Administration to not pursue its strategic agenda.

Cleary, Beijing’s priority remains focused on strengthening its strategic power in the region and the recent verdict on the South China Sea issue has increased the level of tensions with Washington, enhancing the perception of China as a major revising power able to disrupt the fragile regional balance.

During this difficult phase, a further attempt to pursue an assertive strategy toward Seoul would rather produce the opposite effect, facilitating Seoul’s decision to enhance the strategic partnership with Washington. Albeit, the Chinese leadership understands the implications of the fracture of the relations with Seoul, concessions over THAAD could be considered as a sign of weakness. Beijing could not risk seeing its core interest in the region undermined, while losing grounds in projecting its strategic power in its close backyard.



Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito